Gunfighting – The Killing of Charlie Storms: The Birth of Modern Body Armor

Nowadays soft body armor is ubiquitous kit anyplace people try to hurt one another. The concept spawned from some dark fascinating episodes.

Sometimes some of the most remarkable stuff comes from some of the most unexpected places.

Luke Short was the archetypal Old West gunslinger with several successful shootouts under his belt.

Luke Short was a Faro dealer and part-owner of the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona Territories, in 1882. The veteran of any number of successful gunfights, at 32 years of age Short was a seasoned gunman. On February 26th he was dealing cards at the Oriental opposite a local ne’er-do-well named Charlie Storms.

Charlie Storms was in attendance the day Jack McCall murdered Wild Bill Hickok. Wild Bill’s flowing locks were part of his mystique.

Storms was in his sixties and was likewise an experienced gunslinger with several notches to his gun. He had been present at the killing of Wild Bill Hickok six years prior and was rumored to have taken Wild Bill’s pistol as a souvenir in the mayhem that followed. This fateful day in February of 1882 Storms had been true to his name. He was naturally argumentative and had been up all night playing cards, sucking down cheap whiskey, and quarreling.

Bat Masterson was a famous gambler, gunfighter, and Dodge City Sheriff who enjoyed a friendship with both Charlie Storms and Luke Short.

Bat Masterson was acquainted with both men. While no one went to bed with a truly clean conscience in Tombstone in the 1880s, Masterson’s friendship with both Short and Storms was genuine. He sincerely wished to play the role of peacemaker. When tempers flared he attempted an intervention.

The Shooting

Luke Short is shown here second from the left on the back row. The man to his left is Bat Masterson.

The working theory is that Storms simply misjudged Short. Masterson later wrote that he thought that Charlie felt Luke was the sort he could smack around with impunity. However, there is a timeless axiom among gunfighters. One should never underestimate one’s enemies. Storms would live to regret his temper.

George Goodfellow MD was a serial womanizer who kept in the company of hard men. He happened to be lifting a glass in the Oriental when things went sideways.

Storms vociferously accused Short of cheating. Masterson intervened before things got out of control and moved the intoxicated man outside the establishment. Once he had Storms safely in the street he tried to calm Short down as well. Throughout it all Dr. George Goodfellow MD sat at a nearby table nursing his drink.

Charlie Storms’ cut-down Peacemaker was designed for concealment and fast action.

All involved were then surprised to see the drunken Storms barge back towards Short. He pushed his friend Masterson aside, took hold of Short’s right ear in his left hand, and made for his gun, a cut-down .45-caliber Colt Peacemaker Sheriff’s Model.

The muzzle blast from the heavy .45LC round can be prodigious. At contact range, it was adequate to set Charlie Storms’ shirt alight.

Whether the issue was decided by Short’s greater skill, his relative youth, or simply the fact that the younger man’s judgment and reflexes were not so impaired as were those of his intoxicated opponent, Luke drew faster. He pressed the muzzle of his own Peacemaker against Storm’s left chest, thumbing the hammer back as it came to bear, and fired a heavy 255-grain lead slug straight through the man’s heart. He cycled his revolver and shot the hapless malcontent a second time as he fell backward. The discharge of the weapon was so close and so violent that it set Charlie’s shirt on fire.

Actual Old West saloon gunfights were close range and pitiless as demonstrated by this classic NC Wyeth painting.

The two rounds knocked Storms rearward some twelve feet and onto his back. Along the way Storms got off two shots of his own from his stubby single-action pistol, neither of which connected. Though it took a moment for his brain to get the memo, Storms was dead when he hit the ground.

Working as he did in Tombstone gave Dr. Goodfellow superb opportunity to study and treat gunshot wounds.

Dr. Goodfellow was nearby watching everything with a detached professional interest. Goodfellow was a fascinating character who lived in the company of fascinating characters. The good doctor was at the time the world’s foremost authority on gunshot wounds. Living and practicing as he did in the gunfighting capital of the American West he had ample opportunity to study such stuff.

The .45 LC is a brute of a cartridge that punches deep.

Charlie Storms was beyond saving. Short’s heavy bullet tore all the way through his heart and flattened on his vertebral column. What surprised Dr. Goodfellow, however, was that, unlike other chest wounds he had attended, that of Charlie Storms reflected a rather bloodless slaughter. Once he retired Storms’ cooling corpse to the undertaker’s office and got him disassembled he uncovered the reason. His discovery would shape the tactical landscape to this very day.

Serendipitous Body Armor

The classic silk handkerchief is a timeless fashion accessory. Dr. Goodfellow discovered that it also renders admirable service containing bullets.

It seems when Charlie Storms had set out the morning prior he had tucked a modest silk handkerchief into his left breast pocket. Short’s heavy bullet had center-punched the dainty accessory. However, instead of tearing through as would certainly have been the case with cotton or wool, the silk encapsulated the penetrating missile and accompanied it into the wound. Dr. Goodfellow was amazed to find that the handkerchief was not torn or otherwise violated.

Another of Goodfellow’s patients was the recipient of a load of 00 buckshot. A typical charge of 00 buck launches nine .33-caliber lead balls.

Goodfellow attended another unfortunate gentleman who caught a load of buckshot from a 12-bore to the face. This poor slob took several shots that punched through his sinuses and facial bones before expeditiously snuffing his mortal glimmer. However, one of the heavy .33-caliber balls caught the man square on his silk hatband and failed to penetrate. Had that been the sole missile it would have precipitated a mighty headache and left an impressive mark but should not have killed the man. Dr. Goodfellow was a smart guy, and these observations lit his fuse.

The Guns

The 1873 Colt Peacemaker is as iconic a firearm as ever was contrived. This timeless design is as elegant as it is effective.

Both men in this torrid little tale apparently carried their own variations of Samuel Colt’s classic 1873 Peacemaker revolvers. The 1873 was a cartridge-firing evolution of the earlier cap and ball wheelguns with which both sides prosecuted the American Civil War. The single-action 1873 remains a respectable combat tool even today.

The 1873 Colt revolver looks like it should be awfully awkward and inefficient. Quite the contrary, Colonel Colt’s masterpiece is perfectly balanced, timelessly effective, and a delight to run.

After a literal lifetime of study, I cannot seem to tease out the secret sauce with which Sam Colt infused his 19th-century revolvers. The graceful arching grip lacks stippling or finger grooves at all yet it fits my own greasy mitts better than any modern plastic pistol. The massive spurred hammer looks like it would catch on absolutely everything, yet I can run this old single action almost as well as I might more modern iron. The swinging gate reloading system is undeniably laborious, particularly if you find yourself in a rush, but the gun is otherwise remarkably efficient.

The archetypal military version of the Peacemaker sported a long 7.5-inch barrel.

Most 1873 Peacemakers came from the factory in 4.75, 5.5, and 7.5-inch barrel lengths. We presume that of Luke Short had one of the more abbreviated tubes. Charlie Storms’ gun is described in reliable sources as a particularly short-barreled version.

Stubby short-barreled variants of the 1873 varied considerably in their details yet remained both concealable and powerful.

Short-barreled Peacemakers typically sported barrels of four inches or less. Sometimes they lacked forward sights and ejector rods. These stubby little wheelguns were typically known informally as the Sheriff’s Model, the Banker’s Special, or the Shopkeeper.

A chopped barrel on a defensive firearm inevitably takes a toll on performance yet typically makes the gun more portable and maneuverable while inevitably amping up the cool points.

Then as now shorter barrels equaled better concealment but lower velocities. In the sorts of contact-range engagements described here, losing a little velocity among friends didn’t make much difference. However, concealability and accessibility could determine who thrived and who died.

The Rest of the Story

Luke Short survived his gunfighting career ultimately to succumb to kidney disease at a young age.

Marshal Ben Sippy arrested Luke Short and accused him of murder. Mostly due to the testimony of Bat Masterson he was released once the sordid episode was appreciated as a clear-cut case of self-defense. Short, experienced gunman that he was, ultimately died at age 39 from Bright’s Disease, a particularly insidious kidney malady that likely would have been a pretty horrid way to go in the days before decent medical care.

Dr. Goodfellow was a true renaissance man widely published in the medical journals of the day. In 1887 he penned The Impenetrability of Silk to Bullets for the Southern California Practitioner. He was the first surgeon to document the need for an exploratory laparotomy in the case of gunshot wounds to the abdomen. His groundbreaking work in this field shapes surgical decision making to this very day.

Dr. Goodfellow collected Gila Monsters and intentionally allowed one of the venomous reptiles to bite him just to prove that such an attack was survivable.

Goodfellow conducted extensive primary research on the bites and venom of Gila Monsters and rattlesnakes.

George Goodfellow was also a self-taught seismologist who produced this map of the fault lines of the Bavispe earthquake that struck the Mexican state of Sonora in 1887.

He also produced one of the first reliable maps of an earthquake fault zone. In his free time, he helped negotiate the end of the Spanish American War. Dr. Goodfellow was indeed a fascinating guy.

Failure to appreciate the nature of infection ultimately killed President James Garfield.
George Goodfellow effectively sterilized his instruments using strong soap and whiskey.

In 1882 few embraced the germ theory of disease, so sawbones surgeons of the era would explore wounds and attempt to retrieve bullets using nothing more than their own filthy fingers. Such primitive technique literally killed President James Garfield after Charles Guiteau shot him in the belly in 1881.

Goodfellow’s epiphany ultimately spawned the earliest examples of soft body armor.

By contrast, Dr. Goodfellow would sterilize his hands and instruments with whiskey and lye soap before an operation and found that he enjoyed markedly higher survival rates than did his non-sterile counterparts.

Modern body armor is both comfortable and effective.

Goodfellow’s research into silk as a bullet-resistant material led to rudimentary soft body armor. These vests were made from multiple layers of silk, itself already just stupid expensive, so they could cost upwards of $800 a piece back in the day. That’s about $50,000 in today’s dollars. There is a persistent tale that Archduke Ferdinand owned one of these vests on the day he was shot yet failed to wear it for reasons lost to history. This oversight precipitated the First World War.

Luke Short’s tidy spot of violence ultimately saved countless lives.

Ultimately silk was replaced by more advanced synthetic materials that eventually led to today’s Kevlar and Spectra fibers. Nowadays nobody in any developed country heads into harm’s way without sheathing him or herself within some kind of body armor. The number of lives saved is truly incalculable.

The site of Charlie Storms’ murder is now a popular and commercialized tourist attraction.

The fascinating bit is that it all started with a gory disagreement over a card game, an inquisitive surgeon, and a dainty silk handkerchief.

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Jesse Tiede December 5, 2019, 7:46 pm

    If the shooting was ruled “Self Defense”, why does the caption under the last picture say Short MURDERED Storm?
    Always had a soft spot for SAA revolvers. I owned several of Ruger’s SA ( .357/.38Spl, .45 ACP/.45 Colt, both Blackhawks, and a .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk), for awhile, but, the need for speed caused me to divest of all of them. I do have a really nice trigger on a S&W 586. My grand daughter kinda has her eye on that one, though…

  • Phil in TX December 5, 2019, 12:48 pm

    Wonderful article full of fascinating information. A well told story filled with well known characters like Wild Bill and Bat Masterson.

    Phil in TX

  • Anthony Romano December 5, 2019, 7:01 am

    Great article!! I’m 72 and shoot cowboy action shooting and am possessed by the tales of the old west!

  • Terry December 2, 2019, 7:11 pm

    Nicely written, great photos, an entertaining read.

    Thank you Mr. Dabbs

    Terry

    Retired LEO and still teaching firearms for self defense.
    I’ll be 72 in March and starting my 45th year as an instructor

    • Thomas Prather December 4, 2019, 11:55 am

      Thank you sir, for the years you served your fellow citizens.

  • mtman2 December 2, 2019, 5:38 pm

    No doubt Storm was bent on murder + Short reacted…

    No follow up if Short did cheat…..been nice to know!

  • Allen Alexander December 2, 2019, 4:48 pm

    “The graceful arching grip lacks stippling or finger grooves at all yet it fits my own greasy mitts better than any modern plastic pistol.”

    You know what they say, “Plastic is for a woman’s credit card”.

  • Mike V December 2, 2019, 12:53 pm

    In one of those pictures, the muzzle end bore is red, why is that?

  • TJ Reeder December 2, 2019, 11:48 am

    Thank you Will! I love this kind of history! Keep it coming!

    TJ Reeder

    Author

  • mikeb December 2, 2019, 10:36 am

    Having recently watched the Deadwood series and movie, which included the demise of Wild Bill, this is an interesting insight to the guns of the wild west. Great article.

  • AK December 2, 2019, 10:12 am

    Mongol horsemen knew the protective qualities of silk against edged/pointed weapons and wore heavy silk shirts under their leather jerkins. An arrow would penetrate the skin, but be depth-limited due to the protective qualities of the silk shirt. An arrow or spear would not penetrate but dragged with the silk shirt with it into the wound. Simply pulling on the shirt would pull the arrowhead/spearpoint out of the wound, minimizing damage.

    • Mark N. December 4, 2019, 2:03 am

      Europeans used padded and quilted doublet under chain mail. the combination of the two was more effective than either alone, and were proof against most arrow shots. The fabric of the doublet varied depending on the size of one’s wallet, the most expensive ones being made of silk. There were any number of experiments over the years using silk as armor against swords, mot notably in China, where layers of silk would be lacquered together as the backing for leather lammelar armor.

    • Huapakechi December 5, 2019, 11:30 am

      The Moro tribes of the Philippines (in rebellion against the U.S. occupation) wound their bodies with silk which rendered the .38 caliber revolvers used by the U.S. Army ineffective. This engendered the development of the .45 caliber M1911 semi automatic handgun.

  • SD December 2, 2019, 9:04 am

    Fascinating story. I’ll be 70 in January and still learning. Really enjoyed your interesting piece.

  • Patrick Colahan December 2, 2019, 8:49 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this account. It never ceases to amaze me where science and technology will draw its ideas and concepts from. The fact that this story is set in the Old West is even better.
    Thank you.
    Patrick

  • Altoids December 2, 2019, 6:54 am

    Another fascinating historical piece.

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